Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Energizer Teacher

There is a kind of interesting discussion that has been taking place on the WPA listserv. It was prompted by the new movie Freedom Writers starring Hilary Swank and began as a critique of this type of representation of teachers (particularly young, white and female) who give up their own life in order to "save" the lives of their disenfranchised students. These teachers are portrayed as completely self-sacrificial -- having no life outside of school and their students' lives. The listserv has gone on to name numerous similar representations with teachers of various races and both genders (though the question that initially began the discussion was looking for representations of minority teachers, teaching a body of primarily white students). While the discussion is primarily focused on race -- something I also find interesting (the person who posed the question could only come up with To Sir with Love, which was also the only film I could think of) -- I am very interested in this idea of the self-sacrificial teacher who is willing to give up "her" marriage and personal interests in order to better "serve" her students. (Granted, I have not seen Freedom Writers, so I'm working primarily from what people have been saying about it and previews, but I've certainly seen these representations in other films).

Lately I've been going around talking about the amount of energy it takes to teach. Something any and every teacher is well aware of. And I've started thinking back to a time when I was adjuncting, teaching five classes and working an additional job and taking a graduate class. (Apparently the teacher whom Freedom Writers is based on was paid 27,000/year and took two additional part time jobs). I keep thinking...wow, how did I do that? Right now the three classes I teach seem to take over my entire life. Five just seems overwhelming. However, I've always said that I'd love a community college job, and those tend to be a 5 - 5 load (sometimes more). When interviewing for them, I simply thought, I've done this before, and I was quite happy. But I was also something else: single. Not only was I single; I lived in the middle of nowhere (Newfane, VT with a population of under 1700) in a tiny (very rustic -- you could see the dirt from the ground between the slabs of wood that made my floor) cabin with no heating source except a wood stove. I had very few friends, and certainly fewer whom were easily accessible without all wheel drive. I worked out -- mostly by myself, but sometimes with the two friends who lived closest to me -- at a gym near one of the colleges where I taught. Yes, it seems I was living the life of a monk. And so teaching five classes simply was my whole life, and I quite enjoyed it. But life now is very different. I live in a city. I have two separate communities of friends. I have a partner, a house, a yard, a dog, heat that turns on by itself. I have a mall nearby. I play tennis, take spin classes, yoga classes, play Ultimate frisbee. (I'm beginning to sound like a bit of a yuppie). I meet up with friends at coffee shops, run into people I know at the movies. One person on the listserv said that one of the first things he learned in an education class is that a good teacher has a rich "outside" of school life. So it would seem that all of these things should be good for my teaching, and I'm sure that in many ways they are. But I haven't quite gotten the knack of having this rich outside life and not feeling overwhelmed by teaching. Part of me truly feels that my students should have a piece of my brain at all times: when I'm falling asleep at night; when I'm listening to D talk; when I'm out to a movie with friends -- during all of this I'm still brainstorming how to reach so-and-so, how I'll do such-and-such the same or differently, or I'm thinking about their blog entries; how I am going to respond to what they're thinking, etc. And even with the amount of energy I put into teaching, I'm still no Freedom Writer teacher; I'm still no Dead Poet's Society teacher. I'm just getting by, at the same time as I'm trying to do everything I can to ensure my students learn and succeed.

So I guess that ultimately my thought is that I have been convinced by these portrayals of the self-sacrificial teacher; that it really does take complete devotion to teaching and to the lives of students to be a "super"-teacher. How else to be a super-teacher? I read the listserv, and rationally I know the ways that these images and narratives are problematic. I know that the poster who wrote about having the rich outside life is probably right. But I'm still not fully convinced. A part of me continues to believe teachers need to take vows of celibacy, a vow of poverty, and forsake all that is not directly beneficial to their students.

Then I found this book and thought it might be helpful to read it. But then I read the customer reviews, which say things like:
Graduate students thinking about making careers as professors should read this book carefully, especially if they have or would like to have children. Each author in the edited volume describes her valiant attempt to have a family life and an academic job at the same time. It's not a pretty picture. The narratives are personal and powerful. Several are horror stories about the inhumane treatment of new professors who are also new mothers.

Although this book is most relevant as a cautionary tale for women entering academia, it is also a "must read" for anyone interested in the history of feminism. The memoirs of some of the senior female academics, pioneers in their fields, reveal awesome courage. This is the printed mentor that I've seen other books purport to be.

My one concern is that the book's bleak honesty may discourage some graduate students, or create the impression that it is better to wait until after tenure to start a family.


Horror stories? Courage necessary to a female academic? Discourage graduate students?

13 comments:

MarkD said...

J--

You know I've been thinking a lot about these issues, especially now that I'm not teaching. The strange thing is, in some ways anyway, I work more now than I did teaching a five-five-two load. I mean, I get up at 6am, start thinking about what I need to do that day, work from 7:30 to five or six every night. Part of that's just me, and I'm not discounting the labor of teaching. I just think that there's something else involved in teaching that's really at the root of what you're describing.

If you look back at what you wrote, the things that you say that really keep you (pre-)occupied aren't the labor of teaching (marking papers, reading texts, etc.) but thinking about how to reach some pedagogical goal:

I'm still brainstorming how to reach so-and-so, how I'll do such-and-such the same or differently, or I'm thinking about their blog entries; how I am going to respond to what they're thinking, etc.

And in the context here of that "super-teacher," I think the issue is really about what the "goals" of teaching are, either personally, or in the profession as a whole. I mean the trouble with those media representations you're discussing isn't just that they're self-sacrificial, but that they promote models of individual achievment and objectified change that I think are both illusory. It would be very satisfying, I suppose, to finish a semester and have all of your students somehow be fundamentally different. But you know that isn't how it works.

On the other hand, I have to think it would be much more effective if, on an institutional level, teachers and administrators worked toegther to come up with answers for those kinds of questions you're sweating out on your own, and worked to put those answers into practice so that all of you could achieve over the long term what is so impossible to achieve in one fifteen-week semester.

But as you and I know, the culture of insecurity and competition in academia means that will never happen. But I have to think it's the stress of trying to figure out all the work of teaching all by yourself that causes the stress, rather than the work involved. Anyway. Does that make sense?

VTmtngrrl said...

That *does* make sense, mark (you always make sense). I do feel that the CSR dept./community has done some work toward creating that environment where I'm not figuring it all out on my own. We have opportunities almost weekly to get together with other instructors and faculty members and discuss our work. And, one faculty member in particular is working hard to try to gain funding the will help support professional development type stuff for adjuncts, etc.

I guess I find I am always the one reminding other people that we never get to see the trajectory of our work. The "change" we might create in our students, as you point out, certainly isn't necessarily visible at the end of fifteen weeks, but I guess I have the tendency to forget that myself.

Still, I just am not sure my personality type lends itself to the type of labor that is thinking so much (meaning, in my case, slightly obsessively) about teaching and/or how to reach certain pedagogical goals.

But I agree that overall the important factor that is so often missing is the one you seem to get at -- administrative recognition of the problems and support to help rectify and/or reduce.

VTmtngrrl said...

Also, it's like this: I remember I had a yoga instructor who once told me that yoga teachers are not necessarily very healthy -- they eat poorly (maybe a bit of almond butter on bread or a piece of cheese or a few nuts here and there) because they are so busy teaching yoga, and, not being able to do so on a full stomach they eat minimally all day long.

Similarly, as the semester approaches I notice my own sugar cravings in the late afternoon are kicking in. I suddenly NEED caffeine. Figuring out how to fit in healthy meals becomes incredibly difficult. In short, nourishing myself in ways that I feel important (to me) takes a backseat to nourishing my students (or trying / hoping to). I know that with any job, we all have to juggle meals and staying healthy and so on, but I guess I just feel like with teaching I rely heavily on the "quick fixes" rather than the things that are truly healthy for me.

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